Scriabin: Prometheus the Poem of Fire
Scriabin composed his Prometheus - the Poem of Fire in 1910. It was an
unprecedented kind of novelty, both in its experimental sonorities and in its theatrical
instructions for performance.
The composer envisaged an atmospheric depiction of the Greek legend of Prometheus.
Prometheus was a half-god / half-man, who made mankind out of clay, taught them the fine
arts, and stole fire for them from heaven. To punish Prometheus for this, the God Zeus
chained him to a rock in the Caucasus, where a vulture pecked at his liver each day. Only
at night was his liver restored.
It was the conflict between body and soul in Prometheus that inspired Scriabin to
compose his Poem of Fire, in which the spirits and powers of light and fire
associated with Prometheus are brought to life by a huge orchestra, solo piano, chorus and
a complex web of stage lighting that changes in colour and intensity to suit the various
elements of the story. For Scriabin this was not just intended as a musical experience. As
a theosophist, that is a follower of a philosophy professing to attain divine knowledge
through spiritual ecstacy, he believed his Prometheus would in reality
incarnate the spiritual presence of light and fire invoked by the half-god, half-man
Prometheus, who, according to the Greek legend, stole sparks from the gods chariot
wheels and transformed them into fire for man on earth.
Since his young years Scriabin had been strongly affected by the relationship of light
and fire to the rebels Satan, Lucifer and Prometheus, all outcasts from heaven, and he had
become obsessed by sensations of musical tonalities that conjured up to him visual colours
depicting various elements of their characters. In Prometheus he brought these
visions to their climax in a large scale panoramic presentation of twelve elements
associated with Prometheus, with each element evoked by a specific key and accompanied by
a specific colour effect expressing each ones characteristic. The elements are:
Contemplation - Creativity - The Movement of Spirit into Matter - Lust or Passion -
Creative Play - Moonshine or Frost - The Diversification of Will - Joy - The Human Will -
The Will of the Creative Spirit - Humanity - Matter.
The work opens with a shimmering carpet of sound representing Chaos before creation.
The horns then indicate the beginning of life, the Creative Principle,
establishing a marriage of harmony and melody. Trumpets announce the moment when
Prometheus was given fire. As the fire ignites a solo trumpet proclaims the theme of Will.
The music then describes the descent of spirit into matter and the flight of the soul into
spirit. The introduction ends with a short run of notes signifying suffering.
Now the main section of the work begins with what Scriabin called
Contemplation and The Dawn of Human Consciousness. At the entry of
the piano, the God/Man Prometheus begins to exert his dominance and, as the full range of
Scriabins enormous orchestra is deployed, the work begins its main journey evoking
Prometheuss feelings of power, eroticism, passion and fear, as he fights his
conflicts between being a god and a man. Scriabin indicates the route of this journey
through the Cosmos as all Prometheuss fifteen character elements come and go. Man
triumphs over himself and God. As the orchestration, rhythms and colours become
increasingly animated and intense, the flames of fire become greater, brighter and
fiercer. Near the end the chorus enters, humming without words, signifying that Man has
become Mankind. Then the Cosmic Dance of Atoms begins and the thematic structure splits
into pieces. The world disintegrates into Nirvanas cosmic dust, and Mans
disembodied spirit is sent back into the universe, blown by solar storms into the eternal.
Suddenly, with a sustained chord at full force from the entire orchestra and chorus,
Scriabins Prometheus ends with the final transfer of everything back
Scriabins orchestration is extremely and indeed unusually large consisting of a
full strength of strings, 3 flutes, piccolo, 3 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets, bass
clarinet, 3 bassoons, contra bassoon, 8 horns, 5 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani,
bass drum, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, glockenspiel, tubular bells (handled by six
percussionists), celeste, two harps, piano, organ, and chorus.
For the lighting effects Scriabin included a part for an instrument he himself dreamed
up, a clavier a luce, literally a keyboard of lights. It is given detailed
musical notation in two sections. The bottom section is a bass line producing general
atmospheric colours around the whole hall, and as the colours change they denote
Scriabins race changes - the mental transformations the audience
experiences as the music progresses. The top section activates more ephemerally changing
spots of colour aligning the colours and keys of Prometheuss character elements. The
composer notated these as follows:
C flat and B (enharmonic*) - Blue, or Pearly Blue -
G flat and F sharp (enharmonic*) - Bright Blue, or Violet -
D flat and C sharp (enharmonic*) - Violet, or Purple - Will of
the Creative Spirit
A flat - Violet or Lilac - Movement of Spirit into Matter
E flat - Flesh (Glint of Steel) - Humanity
B flat Rose or Steel - Lust or Passion
F - Deep Red - Diversification of Will
C - Red (Intense) - the Human Will
G - Orange - Creative Play
D - Yellow - Joy
A - Green - Matter
E - Sky Blue - Moonshine or Frost
* enharmonic: the same note, but relating to different keys